As an English major, I’m fascinated by literary works that navigate identity, trauma and other facets of the human experience.
Stories like “Drown” by Afro-Latino writer Junot Díaz introduced me to new ways to think about homosexuality and masculinity. And Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” taught me about grief through his account of his father’s survival of the Holocaust.
In my experience, talking about these topics in classes with students from different academic disciplines and personal backgrounds can be even more eye-opening than reading the texts alone.
To encourage students to take part in these kinds of literary discussions, Temple should reinstate its summer reading program for incoming freshmen, focusing on texts that deal with identity in the hope of promoting compassion and empathy among new classmates.
“These kinds of reading projects are always a great chance to introduce students to the kind of critical thinking they’ll be expected to do in college,” said Doug Greenfield, senior associate director of the Intellectual Heritage department.
In the former summer reading program, which ran from 2001 to 2007, students would voluntarily read a book over the summer. Then during orientation, new students would meet with professors to discuss the book, and the author would speak on Main Campus.
“Our program was not required and the students had to buy the books themselves,” said Michele O’Connor, associate vice provost of undergraduate studies. “The program started with just the students in the first-year seminar class having to buy the books, and the ones who came to hear the author.”
A new program could have a similar process. However, participation should be mandatory, ensuring all students reap the benefits of such texts and discussions.
For many students, college is the first time they encounter people of different religions, races and economic backgrounds on a large scale. Reading could give them the chance to think closely about struggles other people face, from racial microaggressions as covered in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” to leaving home for a new country as detailed in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel “Persepolis.”
“That was what we were trying to get students to think about, they themselves transitioning to a new space, and that things are not going to be the same,” O’Connor said. “But they need to think about what other people are going through as well as themselves.”
Books from different cultural perspectives encouraged these discussions in the former program.
O’Connor said Tamim Ansary, author of “West of Kabul, East of New York,” was even eager to talk to students who read his book for the 2005-06 school year. This memoir about an Afghan-American’s experience before and after the 9/11 attacks offered insight on religious and ethnic worldviews.
The following school year students read Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor Was Divine,” a book about Japanese internment.
Perhaps, we need to find ways to stress cultural awareness and respecting the identity of others on Main Campus even more as of late.
After the 2016 presidential election, I noticed more tension among students when topics concerning identity came up in class. And racist stickers scattered about campus in March were also alarming. A book itself may not resolve these rifts, but a summer reading program is worth a try to promote inclusion and understanding.
Requiring new students to engage with different perspectives through reading could help diminish the ignorance that gives rise to racism and other forms of oppression, promoting a more respectful campus.
“I think it’s through books we have a chance to have a conversation, because great books or timely books give us…a language in which to have a conversation, since too often we’re physically failing to talk to one another,” Greenfield said.
Temple can revive the connection between reading and community-building by finding books that will enrich students’ worldviews, like “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates did for many students this past school year.
The history department held a “Semester on Plunder” in the spring, offering classes and lectures — including one by Coates himself — to frame discussions on social, economic and racial issues. These themes were tied into various history courses, and the book was integrated into Mosaics classes.
Noah Morris, a sophomore political science major, took a Mosaics class as a freshman last school year. He initially “wasn’t super excited” about reading “Between the World and Me,” but was impressed once he started reading and discussing it with classmates.
“With a book like this, it talks about issues like race, which permeate everyday society… You see it everywhere you go. That’s what I thought was super interesting about the discussion.”
And Morris said the diversity of his classmates and their perspectives “definitely helped [his] understanding” of the book.
“Hearing someone say one thing or another can change your own opinion and your own view of how something is perceived, in a book especially,” Morris said.
A great book could encourage incoming students to embrace the viewpoints of others and perhaps reconsider their own. And a summer reading program could give incoming students a head start on this process, which is why Temple should reinstate its former program.
Reading and discussing a book that exposes students to lives and ideas they never imagined can only make their transition to college more stimulating and help them land on common ground with their peers once they step on Main Campus in the fall.